Sunday, October 28, 2007

For God Still Loves the World

Follow Christ. Question Culture. Love the Church.
Care of the Earth
selections from Genesis 1, 2, & 9; Matt. 6:25-30; Phil. 2:4-8

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I hate to do it. But I probably have to.
That is, begin this sermon by making a case, that yes,
it’s okay to bring a conversation about the environment
into the church, into the middle of a worship service.
Not every Christian thinks it is.

Earlier this year there was a full-blown public conflict
among evangelical Christians in this country
over global warming and other environmental concerns.
The president and vice-president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals,
and others in the organization began to have a conversion of sorts.
They started saying publicly that the health of our natural environment
ought to be priority agenda of evangelicals,
that our faith in Jesus involves how we care for the earth.
They signed a statement the year before,
along with 86 evangelical pastors and college presidents,
including EMU’s Loren Swartzendruber,
that highlighted the need to take climate change seriously,
because they were followers of Jesus.
And when the NAE vice-president
started speaking out more about the issue,
it got some other evangelicals riled up.
James Dobson, and 24 other prominent evangelical leaders,
wrote an open letter to the NAE,
calling the vice-president to resign.
They accused him of distracting evangelicals
away from [quote] “the great moral issues of our time.”

So is global warming, and the health of our streams and soil,
our skies and seas, a great moral issue, or not?
As with all the other cultural issues we’ve examined in this series,
we begin this conversation with our shared convictions,
our confession of faith.

The words you find in your bulletin today, under “Confessing our Faith”
is the voice of the church.
It is the best theological consensus of Mennonite Church USA,
and Mennonite World Conference.

Let’s read this part of our confession in unison:

We believe that God has created all things visible and invisible—
the heavens and the earth and all that is in them.
All creation has its source outside itself and belongs to the Creator.
We believe that God has created human beings in the divine image.
Human beings have been made for relationship with God,
to live in peace with each other,
and to take care of the rest of creation.
We believe that everything belongs to God,
who calls the church to live in faithful stewardship
of all that God has entrusted to us,
and to participate now in the rest and justice
which God has promised.
We seek to live in the world without conforming to the powers of evil,
witnessing to God’s grace by serving others, caring for creation,
and inviting all people to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

So, is care for our environment a moral issue?
Well, if moral issues are about being in right relationship with God,
who is our creator,
who is the maker and sustainer of the earth and everything in it,
then the answer is both obvious and irrefutable.
Yes, to respect the gift God gave us, is to respect God.
And to disrespect God is immoral. It is sinful.

But some of us apparently have some difficulty,
making this connection between how we treat the earth,
and how we treat God.
We effectively separate and fragment our lives,
to the point where if it’s physical or material
it doesn’t involve God.
God apparently isn’t interested.
God only wants our “heart,” our “spirit,” our mind.
Those things that are internal to us,
that are personal and private and out of sight,
most of the time.
That God’s not very interested
in how much paper we waste at the office,
or how many fish are dying in the Shenandoah River.

We have to read Genesis again.
And read it over and over.
It profoundly shapes how we think about God
and how we live in the world.
Genesis tells us God invested heavily in us,
in this whole earth and all its creatures and growing things.
And God is still invested.
God cares about it all.

We heard an excerpt from both creation accounts, Genesis 1 and 2.
In both, it was clear how much God loved and valued
what he had just created,
and how he put us in charge—us humans—
to take care of things the way he would take care of it.
Genesis 1: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed,
it was very good.”
And, God blessed the male and female humans he just made, and said,
“Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it;
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the air
and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

That text has often given, and continues to give,
some Christians an excuse to tread hard on the earth,
and do with it what they want,
because God said they could.
That is a gross distortion of the text,
that leads to sin, rather than obedience.
The fact of the matter is this dominion God gave us
is a God-like power and authority,
a power that is defined by, and limited by, love.
God loves this world dearly which he has made.
And God has entrusted its care into our hands,
has given us authority—not ultimate authority—
but the authority, and responsibility, to act on God’s behalf.
God trusts us to love the earth and its creatures
the same way God does.

In Genesis 2:15,
we see God prepared the Garden for our enjoyment and use,
and we were put into it, “to till it and to keep it.”
To keep it. In the sense of a keeper at the gate.
One who guards, protects, values...
who treasures that which has been entrusted.
We are earth-keepers. Earth-protectors.
It is our divine mandate, recorded in scripture,
to protect the earth and its God-given treasures.
To do otherwise, is an insult to the Creator God.
And it is sin.

And we learn from chapter 9 in Genesis, which we also had read,
that since the days of Noah,
God is in a covenant with us, and with all living creatures.
After the great flood God made a covenant with all creation
and put up a rainbow as a reminder.
We think too narrowly of the rainbow.
It’s not there just to help us remember
that God is not going to destroy all humankind again.
God said it’s a reminder for him.
It’s to remind God of the covenant.
“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it
and remember the everlasting covenant between God
and of all flesh that is on the earth.”
How often do you stop to think about the fact
that God is in covenant with all the animals and birds,
with every living creature on earth?
We should think of that at least as often as we see a rainbow.

God loves the world, and everything in it.
From the smallest bird of the air, which God feeds,
to the most delicate lily, which God dresses in splendor,
to us, God’s dearly beloved children.
We heard that in Matthew 6.
God loves the world.
That is the Gospel message of John 3:16.
For God so loved the world, the whole world, so much,
that he gave his only begotten Son to redeem it, to save it.
The apostle Paul confirmed that gospel truth,
when he wrote in Romans 8
that all creation is groaning in hope and anticipation,
when God will set “creation from its bondage,”
that all creation is waiting for redemption.

The good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ,
is for the whole world, which God loves.
“For God still loves the world.”

So how do we live in this world?
If God loves the world, and God loves us, and we love God,
that should say something about how we treat what God loves.

That is the challenge, and the question, I put before us—
we who follow Jesus, question culture, and love the church.
As followers of Jesus, we must question the cultural values
of individualism, materialism, consumerism,
and our obsession with personal freedom.
We must buck the trend
to accumulate more,
to build bigger,
to travel faster,
to do whatever it takes to get me what I personally desire,
no matter what it costs the earth God made and loves,
no matter what it costs the poor who are among us now,
no matter what it costs future generations.
Our culture says, the important thing is I have access to whatever I want,
at the time most convenient to me,
and at the cheapest cost to me.
It is self-centeredness and greed,
that has gotten the earth into the fix it is now in.

It’s an age-old problem, that Jesus wants to save us from.
In Philippians 2:4, Paul urged the first-century church,
“Let each of you look not to your own interests,
but to the interests of others.”
He said we get there by looking to Jesus.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...
who emptied himself...and laid down his very life.”

Let’s remember that next time we rationalize
the damage we inflict on God’s creation.
Because, well, it costs more to buy local food,
it takes more time and effort to recharge batteries,
and to recycle stuff that won’t get picked up in green bins.
It takes a lot longer to walk than to drive,
and the cashiers and bag boys look at you funny,
when you hand them your own cloth bags to put the groceries in.
The American obsession with convenience,
and the Mennonite obsession with “getting the best deal”—
are both rooted in self-interest,
and both work against doing the right thing for the earth.
It will usually cost us, in time, in personal energy, in dollars,
to do the right thing.

But that is what God would call us to do—
make sacrifices for the sake of obedience.
We say we’re ready to take up the cross, and follow Jesus.
But are we ready to pay $1/lb. more for local hamburger?

God, our Creator, loves us supremely, and loves this world dearly,
and asks us, out of our love for him,
to respect and to care for what he has made.

So I’m giving an invitation, an altar call, so to speak.
But not as easy as walking a sawdust trail or raising your hand.
All our hands would pop right up, if I asked,
“Are you ready to do your part?”

I’m asking for two specific things,
that you need to think about before you commit.
We have a new list of congregational working agenda items.
They were in your mailboxes two weeks ago,
and we’re discussing them this morning
in our congregational meeting.

Let me read one of them to you, and I quote:
“Explore and implement congregational policies and practices
that promote creation care / stewardship of the earth.”

This came from the Council.
We would like to see a task force formed,
that will do a careful assessment of our building and grounds,
of our office procedures,
of our practices during congregational social events,
and everything we do as a church,
and come up with recommendations
and plans for implementing them,
that will be help us be good stewards of God’s creation.
If you are willing to serve on that task force,
or give leadership to it,
talk to me, or talk to Joe Lapp, Council Chair.

The second thing I’m asking in this invitation,
is to make a commitment to do an assessment of your own practices,
but not to do it alone.
Make it a serious conversation between several households,
or in your small group,
or Sunday School class.
Sacrificial changes in lifestyle is not something to tackle alone.
You need the wisdom, counsel, support, and challenge of others.

Take the five “questions to live with”
at the end of your order of worship,
and actually give them serious, face-to-face discussion.

That is my challenge, and invitation.
May God help us.
And may God be rich in mercy.

Questions to live with:
  • Name some values that keep our culture from making major changes in practices and public policy. Are these values consistent with Christian faith?
  • Do you think your personal environmental practices have a direct effect on your spiritual life? If so, in what way? If not, why not?
  • In what specific way might God be calling you to change your personal or family practices? What kind of support do you need to take that step?
  • Do you think our environmental practices as a congregation have a direct effect on our witness and mission? If so, in what way? If not, why not?
  • Is God calling PVMC to change any congregational practices, in light of God’s love for the earth? What needs to happen for us take that step?

—Phil Kniss, October 28, 2007

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